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Religious freedom

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What to do when in jail? Joseph Nguyen Cong Doan sj could probably write the book of that title, having had ample time to think about it during the years he spent as a political prisoner in Vietnam, from 1980 to 1990. Now as the East Asia and Oceania Regional Assistant to Peter Hans Kolvenbach, the Rome-based Jesuit Father General, his is one of the most visible and powerful positions in the order. For the Jesuits, being a political prisoner can be something very like paying one’s dues as a blues musician: survivors of the process come out with something special to offer the rest of the world.

How did he survive? It was a dangerous time and place to be an active Catholic, in a post-war Vietnam scarred and suspicious of Western influence. In the 1980s most of the people of his generation were rebuilding families and lives. In the rest of the world it was the time when affluent baby-boomers were raising their families, buying their houses, building careers. Vietnam, the big noise of the 60s and early 70s, the icon for Western dissent and Western youth’s claiming of personal freedom, was all but forgotten as marriage, mortgages and material aspiration took over. As Doan served his sentence for ‘anti-revolutionary propaganda’ the world was changing; when he was released there would be work of a different kind, with tasks infinitely more complex, with a materialism more insidious than the idealistic kind that imbued his captors.

Inside jail there was prayer: he prayed seven hours a day. At times the prison was crowded, with up to 12 people in one small cell. It meant that Fr Doan effectively became the chaplain; there were seven other Jesuits, a Dominican and four lay people to attend to. Later there was farm work, an arduous but welcome respite from confinement. Talking with Fr Doan you can easily recall the stories of martyrs under the Tudors: Edmund Campion (the first one), and others of that ilk, called to account by Jesuits’ various enemies of the past. At times he was interrogated up to three times a day in two-hour blocks. One day the chief of the investigators, after having confiscated all the documents of the Society, focused on a section that was to do with fighting atheism. Doan tells it quietly, but you get the feel of an epic battle of wit: the challenge to speak honestly without causing more trouble than was sensible.

‘He said, “You are fighting against us.” I replied “Your atheism causes us to reflect. Capitalist atheism is far more dangerous”.’

Doan’s words were possibly prophetic: the work that faces him now is extraordinary. His area of responsibility includes his homeland, (where there is increased tolerance of religion by the Vietnamese government) the hugely diverse societies of South Asia—and us, the privileged Anglo First World outposts of Australia and New Zealand. Obviously the tasks differ widely, and Doan has been visiting Australia recently to see how we are. As far as passing on the message of the gospel from a Catholic perspective, the prospects are, as policymakers so often say, challenging.

He talks about the spiritual famine that can face First Worlders:

‘Life becomes a closed circle,’ he says. ‘So many things to buy! People with two, three jobs to make money to buy more. Everything becomes commercial. And with TV, newspapers, and [being] constantly entertained, there is no time to think, to reflect on what you are watching, how you are living. People are caught in a spider’s web, closed to other needs.’

It might be simplistic to draw out the paradox of our spiritual prison and physical freedoms against Doan’s experience of their diametrical opposites, but while he is speaking I have a sudden image of his utter felicity in those seven hours of daily prayer, bearing in mind the old catechism definition of prayer as ‘lifting up of the mind and heart to God’.

I think too of the difficulty of passing on the message to the next generation: the children of First-World baby-boomers are more afraid of wearing the wrong brand of shoes than they should be. Their spiritual hungers have been catered for by the global merchants, who provide them with a level of entertainment that would exhaust a Roman emperor. When they need to feel connected with their fellow humans they go clubbing, drink very hard, take a few ‘E’s and have sex. How can the voice of God be heard through all that noise?

I tackle him about it: ‘why don’t Jesuits go to that part of society, the vast mass of middle-ranging people who need something more than consumerism? Why do they focus on the very top and very bottom of society?’

He isn’t fazed: he’s survived interrogation before. He refers me kindly but firmly back to Ignatius, as so many Jesuits will do. He reminds me that Ignatius had a principle of knowing how to choose what to do, and it seems to be very close to the current wisdom of not spreading yourself too thin, to focus hard in one or two areas. From the time of Ignatius, Jesuits have been trying to influence the powerful to treat the poor better. Knowing fully that that is a very big ask, with mixed success at best, Jesuits also have to be helping the poor at the same time. It occurs to me some time after the interview that there wasn’t much of a spiritually needy and materially insecure middle class in Ignatius’ day, but I am sure Fr Doan would have an informative answer for that too.

It has often been the fate of Jesuits to be in the firing line simply because they take the fight up to where they see the most action: the most obvious adversaries are poverty and oppression, and the glossy, well-fed, confident elites who cause the trouble. The needs are glaring, with clear-cut tasks: improve this, argue against that, work with this, fight that. It keeps the recruits flowing in, particularly in places like Vietnam, where there are 16 first-year novices among their five million Catholics. (In Australia, there are four novices, two of them first years. We also have about five million Catholics.)

It is a tantalising prospect: soon, certainly within a generation or two, most orders will be finished, their special flavour of Catholicism lost, except in the Third World. The still mainly Anglo-European First World countries will be non-Christian, their schools secularised, their cathedrals little but items on tourists’ itineraries of monuments and past glories. Into this will come, I’m willing to bet, missionaries from places like Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Africa. They will be bearing the message that was taken to them centuries ago, and doing the job with more compassion and enlightenment than was done with them. Fr Doan’s ancestors were among the very first converts to Christianity in Vietnam in the 17th century. His spiritual children will be needing to convert the West back. If anyone can organise it, he will.

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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Existing comments

While looking for any books or articles by Fr. Joseph Doan Cong Nguyen I stumbled upon your article. The last paragraph is very disturbing, as it should be. Thank you.

Ralph Smith | 20 June 2015  

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